Please support our work this Giving Tuesday.

by Peter Wagner, November 29, 2016

Justice reform needs your support like never before. The good news is that after decades of prison growth, the public is starting to embrace criminal justice reform. The bad news is that we just elected a "law and order" President who says that crime is at record heights. (The truth is that crime is just off from a historic low.)

Our work just got harder, especially at the federal level. But there are many opportunities for change at the state level where most of the prisons are.

The Prison Policy Initiative excels at finding the missing data that is holding back criminal justice reform in the states. This year we:

  • Produced a report, States of Incarceration: The Global Context, that showed that every state — even the “progressive” states — use incarceration far more than the other nations of the world.
  • Broadened the movement’s scope by putting the numbers on the size of each state’s probation population. Our report, Correctional Control, showed that probation, intended as an alternative to incarceration, now reaches almost twice as many people as the prison and jail systems.
  • Unlocked rare government data to show that the ability to pay money bail is impossible for too many defendants because it represents eight months of a typical defendant’s income. Detaining the Poor also showed how much harder it is for women and people of color to afford bail.

These reports have reshaped the debate around criminal justice reform in this country. A small group of individual donors made these reports — and our legislative victories — possible. To continue this fight, we need your help. Can you make a gift to support our work today?

As a bonus, a group of donors will match the first $30,000 that we receive from this appeal. So any gift you can make will automatically go twice as far.

Thank you for taking a stand for justice, fairness, and truth at this time when all three are under attack.


A recent analysis finds that the most frequently incarcerated in New York City jails struggle with mental illness and are locked up for low-level offenses

by Bernadette Rabuy, November 16, 2016

A recent analysis uncovers a counterintuitive finding: the people most frequently incarcerated in New York City jails are also people who would be better served with social services in the community.

A 2015 report by the city’s department of health used health data to examine the 800 people who were most frequently incarcerated in New York City jails from November 2008 through December 2014. The authors found that, in comparison to the rest of the people incarcerated in New York City jails, the frequently incarcerated were:

  • Older
  • More likely to be Non-Hispanic black
  • More likely to be diagnosed as seriously mentally ill
  • More likely to have a history of significant drug and alcohol use
  • More likely to mention homelessness in their full history and physical examination

At the same time, the frequently incarcerated individuals were:

  • More likely than the other people admitted to New York City jails to have low-level offenses. Two-thirds of the frequently incarcerated group was locked up for low-level theft, possession of small quantities of drugs, trespassing, or fare evasion.

During the six-year period, the group had a median of 21 incarcerations with a median length of stay of 11 days in jail. As a result, it cost the city $129 million to lock up and provide health care to just these 800 people.

The report’s findings on the needs of the most frequently incarcerated makes the growing popularity of “mental health jails” troublesome. Instead of recognizing that jail may not be the best solution to mental illness or substance abuse, municipalities are adopting reforms that call jails by other, gentler names without addressing the systemic issues that make jails a particularly tough place for those struggling with mental health and substance abuse.

In California, for example, the public has shown overwhelming support for alternatives to incarceration, yet even still, county legislators and sheriffs have been staunch supporters of new jail construction. At the same time, there is evidence that these county officials recognize the growing movement for reform that’s taking place in California and beyond and, in response, have moved away from the tough-on-crime narrative. Activist and author James Kilgore calls these attempts to repackage jails as social service providers, “carceral humanism.” It explains why Los Angeles County’s proposal for a new women’s jail has sometimes been called a “women’s village” and why San Mateo County is so proud of its “compassionate jail.”

But even brief jail stays can be incredibly disruptive. They separate families, some of whom struggle to keep in touch. And they can lead to a loss of employment for people who already struggle to find gainful employment.

This report shows that America’s use of jails to address mental health and substance abuse is not working. And there are already too many examples of jails failing to provide adequate mental health and substance abuse services. It’s time for our social policies to be more creative and look beyond institutionalized settings like jails.

Our just completed year was our most successful yet. Recap our victories and help us plan for more wins this year.

by Peter Wagner, November 8, 2016

We just released our 2015-2016 Prison Policy Initiative Annual Report, and I’m thrilled to share some highlights of our work with you. We had another great year of leading innovative campaigns while also strengthening the movement with long-absent data and resources.

thumbnails from Prison Policy Initiative 2015-2016 annual report

Part of what makes the Prison Policy Initiative unique is the way in which we analyze and present obscure or underutilized data to fill information gaps that are stalling the movement against mass incarceration. For example, detaining people because they are poor is an offensive idea, but it was difficult to prove that this is exactly what the American cash bail system does. This year, Bernadette Rabuy and Daniel Kopf were able to support this claim with evidence in our report Detaining the Poor: How money bail perpetuates an endless cycle of poverty and jail time by putting an obscure government dataset to good use. In addition, Aleks Kajstura and Russ Immarigeon wrote a report putting each state’s incarceration of women into global context and showing that even the most progressive U.S. states are out of step with the rest of the world.

We did all of this while continuing to achieve real change on our focused campaigns:

To assist us in our mission to continue fueling the movement against mass incarceration, we have grown and added two new full-time members to our team. As the organization grows, so do our financial needs. Generous contributions from funders and individual donors will allow us to complete exciting new reports (along with some much-needed updates to old ones) in the new year. We would love you to join these donors by making a one-time or monthly contribution to our work (link no longer available). And please know that any gifts we receive through the end of 2016 will be matched by other donors, so your generosity will be able to go twice as far.

Thank you for taking the time to celebrate this year’s success with us.

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